The San Diego Chargers maintained the status quo with Norv Turner and the front office in the offseason mostly because they had a franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers. Now the Chargers are dealing with the unique situation of having a franchise quarterback that isn't playing like one.
By definition a franchise quarterback is supposed to be consistently good year after year. It's not common that one has declined or regressed as much as Rivers has at 30. Rivers was highly regarded going into last year, but the last season-and-a-half, he's been barely better than average.
It could be that Rivers has a poor offensive line and a lack of playmakers or he’s developed bad habits. Maybe he’s dealing with a secret injury. Maybe it’s more than one thing, because few quarterbacks have struggled as much as Rivers has at age 30. Franchise quarterbacks don't need excuses.
With one exception, Rivers has thrown more touchdowns and fewer interceptions when he takes more sacks in 2012. This is also somewhat unique for the position. Quarterbacks typically throw fewer touchdowns and more interceptions when under pressure. This suggests that Rivers is throwing passes in the face of pressure that he shouldn’t, a fact that is confirmed when you examine the video.
Rivers was 0-of-6 on his deep attempts in Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns. On at least two occasions Rivers threw ill-advised passes under pressure when he should have taken a sack. With a little less than eight minutes left in the game Rivers was pressure on 3rd-and-14 and decided to throw a side-arm pass that fell short of Robert Meachem.
With a little more than a minute to play in the game and the Chargers hoping to get into range for a game-winning field goal, Rivers was hit as he threw the ball and his pass fell short of tight end Dante Rosario. Rivers is pulling the trigger on deep passes when under pressure, which is a recipe for incomplete passes and interceptions.
The offensive line certainly bears part of the responsibility, but Rivers doesn’t have to throw the ball deep into double, triple and quadruple coverage. Rivers dealt with poor pass-blocking prior to last year without issue. Rivers also hasn't had a dependable checkdown option since Sproles left town for New Orleans. Ronnie Brown may be emerging in that role and is the reason Ryan Mathews isn’t playing on third downs.
Rivers has to start finding his underneath receivers instead of forcing throws deep when he’s under pressure. Rivers would be better off taking sacks and not risking the turnovers. Part of the concern has to be that even when Rivers has time he’s not making good decisions or throws.
On 3rd-and-16 in the second quarter Rivers throws a floating deep pass to the recently signed Denario Alexander. The protection was good, but Rivers threw off his back foot and didn't follow through. It was like Rivers expected the defender to break free from the blocking and hit him even though the defender never did.
The floating pass enabled the safety to come over and help and turned the pass into a three-flies-up competition between Alexander and two defensive backs. Rivers was lucky the ball fell incomplete instead of being intercepted. If Rivers doesn't imagine the pressure and steps into the throw then he has a much better chance of hitting Alexander as the cornerbacks were trying to protect deep.
Rivers will often throw recklessly on third down, but he also has taken unneeded risks on early downs. Using a play-action pass, Rivers buys all kinds of time in the pocket on this first down play in the second quarter.
Instead of finding a shorter, safer completion, Rivers unloads a deep pass to the left that would have had to be perfect to be completed. The pass is tipped and nearly intercepted by the Browns. Rivers took a risk in a tight game and forced his team into a 2nd-and-long situation instead of finding a shorter completion and having a more manageable second down.
On occasion Rivers can still sling a deep pass and put his receiver in a position to make a play. Unfortunately, his playmakers can't even make the simple plays. The Browns blow the coverage and Rivers gets enough protection to deliver the ball accurately and Robert Meachem drops the ball.
Antonio Gates is also not the deep threat he once was, but Rivers will still force it to him in tight coverage. Instead of dumping the ball off and trying to get positive yards on 2nd-and-16, Rivers overthrows Gates. The Chargers would get those 11 yards on the next play and settle for a field goal.
Many of the mistakes Rivers makes are correctable. But old habits die hard. Rivers needs to throw safer passes and be more selective about his deep shots. There's no shame in taking shorter completions when you don't have a receiver who can win in a jump-ball situation, and you don't have protection for the other receivers to get open deep.
Factoring in the issues with the blocking, the lack of playmakers and Rivers’ mental and mechanical issues, it seems unlikely the Chargers are going to be able to turn things around significantly enough to compete with the Denver Broncos in the AFC West.
Rivers will certainly still flash in games, but there are simply too many factors that stand in his way of becoming a consistent producer like he was prior to 2011.